Thursday, May 9, 2019

We're Outdoorsmen

I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind, if even for a moment, but pushing back our opening day weekend to avoid what was looking like a certain washout would have bucked decades of tradition. The line my uncle said over the phone that finally put any notion to bed was, “We’re outdoorsmen.” He was right. Fuck the forecast. We were going when we always go and we were going to enjoy ourselves no matter the conditions. 

It’s funny how things work out because we ended up with two days of better than expected weather before any rain fell and the following weekend was a soaker anyway (ask my buddy Chad who camped along a Natchaug River well over its banks). Our deluge eventually came on Friday night, yet by then we had camp pretty damn tight with ample pop-up tents, tarps, and cordage, as well as a signal fire going throughout.

As it tends to be, the food on this trip was a highlight. Aaron made an incredible paella for dinner on night one that included Bluefin tuna from Cape Cod and fresh clams and mussels. Uncle D rolled out venison backstraps the next night from a trophy buck he took on state land back in muzzleloader season. It was paired well with delicious morels and black trumpets that he picked last spring, dehydrated, and saved for this very moment. Both nights also featured a charcuterie and cheese board and bourbon selection (thanks Tommy) that seemed to reach a new level this year.

The trip falling on Easter weekend threw us a bit of a curveball. We cut things short by a night so we could spend the holiday with our families. That turned a weekend that is typically light on fishing even lighter, but at least the spot where we did wet a line was new water for three of the four in our group. My uncle was the only one who had fished there before and it was fitting that he caught the lone trout of the trip to remind us what a holdover looked like.

We hung around well into Saturday afternoon with a slow breakdown of camp, partly to savor the moment and partly hoping our wet gear would dry out a little. Despite the rain, one less night, and an onslaught of ticks (four surgeries were performed via hemostat), it was another awesome opening day celebration. Regardless of what Mother Nature throws at us, we’ll be going back every third weekend in April. After all, we’re outdoorsmen.

A little hardwood for the fire.
Flowers for our hosts.

Camp life.
The important food groups.

Fire-cooked paella.

Connecticut-grown venison and shrooms on cast iron.

Best breakfast sandwich I've ever had.

The core.

Uncle D showing us he's still got it.

Ready for the rain (photo credit Aaron Swanson).

It finally came in buckets.

Farewell franks. Until next year...

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Holiday Bones: Christmas in the Caribbean

Editor’s note: This is a tale told by my friend Tommy Baranowski. It highlights a type of fishing that doesn’t grace these pages often, in a place I’ve never been, but his story and photos make me want to change that. 

Ever since things got serious between Amanda and me, we discussed spending the holidays far away from the usual hustle and bustle. I never thought we would be able to pull it off our first year as a married couple but thanks to a mix up by our wedding caterers, a little money found its way back to us and the planning snowballed from there.

As we both had the week off between Christmas and the New Year, the when was already settled; we just needed nail down where we were going. Eddie, a close fishing friend of mine, is a seasoned veteran of sight fishing for bonefish in the Bahamas. He’d told me for years I needed to get my ass down to the Abaco Islands to experience it. It only took a few discussions between Eddie and Amanda before she was sold. The trip was booked.

The months leading up to the trip entailed stockpiling an obnoxious amount of gear for a few days fishing. I have a habit of doing this every time I go on a fishing trip. For me the preparation is half the fun. Researching fly patterns, scouting on Google Earth, and grilling friends with experience in specific fisheries—these things help build anticipation. By the time we boarded our plane at Bradley, I had enough flies to supply every angler in the Bahamas.  My fly boxes teemed with Spawning Shrimp, Gotchas, Crazy Charlies, and a crab pattern my buddy Todd had perfected. The final rod count was absurd as well—five fly rods and two spinning combos for good measure.



Although our adventure got off to a rocky start, we eventually found all of our luggage as well as our rental car and were happily driving along on the opposite side of the road.  At our rental, we met Rex and Judy, our hosts for the week. They were honestly two of the nicest people you could ever meet. They helped us get situated and I got to work assembling rods and gear for the next day’s guided trip.

The following morning we woke up to the sound of a shitload of Abaco parrots. I think the island’s whole population was roosting in the trees next door. Things got real when JR, my guide for the day, pulled up in the driveway with his Hells Bay in tow. He stepped out of the truck in a full camo jumpsuit—my kind of dude. JR is a native Bahamian that happened to live just three houses over from our rental. We hit it off swapping hunting and fishing stories on the way to the boat launch. JR told me about the history of the island and its famous fishery, as well as what he does when he’s not guiding…hunting wild boar.

We turned off Abaco’s main highway onto a single lane logging road. It was straight as an arrow and went on so far that the two tire tracks on the ground seemed to disappear into the horizon. The thick pine and palmetto forest eventually thinned out and opened up to a small boat launch called Netty’s Cut. After splashing in, JR hammered down the throttle and headed to the fabled Marls of Abaco, a vast expanse of prime, wilderness and bonefish habitat situated along Great Abaco’s western shore. It consists of miles of mangroves and mud flats. The only way to reach them is in a skiff or small craft.



JR cut the motor and poled into the first spot.  We immediately spied water being pushed along the mangroves. After poling toward the commotion, we found a nice, lone bone milling around. JR positioned the boat and I launched a 40’ cast. The fish swirled on the fly, ate it, and peeled off to the races, putting me into my backing in seconds.

It’s hard to put down in words that feeling of catching my first bonefish on a fly that I tied. For as long as I’ve been into fishing, it’s a moment I’d dreamt about. A species that’s always been high on my bucket list. And, there I was, in a tropical paradise with a perfect specimen in my hand after a hard fought battle. Day one went on like that. Poling new areas, spotting fish and making casts. It was everything I wanted it to be.



The agenda for the ensuing days following the first guided trip went something like: wake up, eat breakfast on beach, walk up and down shoreline with wife and rod-in-hand, eat lunch, hammock nap, explore flats on foot while my wife reads in said hammock, watch sunset, eat dinner, sleep and repeat.

After a few days, I had learned a few things.  One being sun and clear skies were vital to sight fishing success. Being able to see the fish before it sees you is crucial. Two, wind sucked and I knew it would. Everyone I spoke to about fishing the Bahamas in December had one word of caution…wind. Not only does it make casting a bitch, it kills the ability to spot fish. Combine slightly overcast skies and a stiff wind and good luck with that.



On the day before my second guided trip, we took a ride to Cherokee, a small town that is home to the longest pier in all the Caribbean. The pier is situated on a picture perfect flat and while standing on it we spotted schools of cruising fish. Amanda and I found a spot on the small beach at the base of the pier where she could relax and read while I ventured out to fish. As I searched, I let myself get distracted by the crazy amount of conch shells I saw.  I stopped to pick one up that had particularly wild colors. When I picked my head back up, no bullshit, there was a school of at least 40 bonefish swimming by me. They were cruising up and down the shoreline and for the next hour I tried everything I could to get one to eat. Longer leader, lighter tippet, more lead time—it didn’t matter. On a whim I tied on one of the small crab patterns that Todd taught me a few months back. I made a cast and began stripping. A single bone in the big pack that kept swimming by peeled off like a rocket and wolfed down the crab! That eat was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.




The weather turned to complete shit for my second guided trip. The day promised cloudy skies and wind forecast to 40mph. Yet, the show had to go on. This time the ride out to the Marls was wet and nasty. JR had to anchor the skiff once we set up on the spot. Not exactly how you draw up an ideal bonefish outing but fishing isn’t always sunny skies and butterflies. We waited and watched. I have a difficult time just sitting idle on a boat, so i stripped a bunch of line off the reel and started blind casting. A small patch of turtle grass about 60’ straight out in front of the boat caught my eye and I put my fly right in the middle of it. As I stripped it back, I was paying more attention to the scenery than my fly. When I focused, there was a monster bonefish right behind it. I didn’t even have time to think, just stripped, came tight, and let a string of profanities flow out of me. 

That fish was in a different class altogether than anything I had come in contact with prior. Just crazy strong. The first run was so long that the fly line completely disappeared out of sight. When I finally gained back the line and got the fish boat-side, it called bullshit and made the same exact run. This back and forth from the boat to my backing happened four times! Even when JR finally landed the fish, it was still green and didn’t give in easily.


I needed every bit of my nine-weight rod was to tame that fish, a battle-scarred beauty of seven or eight pounds. After a few quick photos to capture the moment, the fish swam away strong. It was surreal; absolutely unbelievable. I took a little time to collect my thoughts, but was back blind casting before long. This time I didn’t see the fish before it ate the fly, but I could tell by its initial run that it was another brute. With the bone now in my backing, we saw what you don’t want to see—a dorsal fin poking out of the water behind it. The line went limp and a shark won that round. A heartbreaker.

At that point in the day, the wind was no longer bearable. JR pulled anchor and we began the bumpy, wet ride back to the launch. Even leaving on that note, it was a truly a day to remember. A day that I am going to be telling other anglers about for the rest of my life. Before flying back to the frozen north, we savored a few more days on the island. We spent them soaking up every ounce of relaxation we could, already scheming about the next time we could return. 



With just a few hours left of our trip, Amanda and I ventured down the beach one last time to an area I had spotted a few fish earlier in the week. The wind had yet to let up but at least the sun was shining. I waded out to a small piece of flat scattered with patches of coral. A few rays and a small shark swam around me. As I stalked up to some coral, I came up on a bonefish so big it made my heart sink into my stomach. The fish was a rod’s length away, partly obscured by waves that were now crashing into me. Before I could do anything, the bone saw me, turned, and hightailed the hell out of there. The long walk back to the cottage gave me plenty of time to think it over. On one hand it was a tough way to end our Bahamian holiday, but on the other hand “the one that got away” meant that I had some unfinished business to take care of. Until next time, Abaco!



Monday, March 25, 2019

First on the Last


Partly sunny and above freezing from the start, it was a full-on beach day when the wind wasn’t blowing. The ice was still about 10-inches thick of varying quality—not bad for March in Connecticut, especially considering the strange 2018-2019 winter we had. In the back of mind, I knew it was my last trip of the season, so I tried to keep that in perspective throughout the day.

A 7 a.m. arrival was later than I’m used to, but how can one complain when getting the red carpet treatment? I was the guest of a friend of a friend that lives in a homeowner’s association with private access. Even better, it was to a location I had never laid eyes on before. Opportunities like this don’t come my way often and I was pumped up to check out new water.

The conditions looked good on paper. Wedged between two snow events, I had high hopes for a moving barometer and feeding fish. Northern pike were the target and in this particular waterbody, the predators seem to prefer their food alive and well. So, with that in mind, I mixed in a few big live shiners on jigging rods along with my usual dead baits under tip-ups.



One of the rod and reel combos was a conventional set-up that I placed in a Nor’Easter—a contraption handmade by a mom-and-pop operation called Indian Hill. Like a traditional tip-up, it gives the visual aid of a tripped flag when your bait is taken. Unlike a tip-up, it allows the angler to fight the fish on a rod instead of by hand. Fighting a pike through the ice on a jigging rod has always appealed to me, but I never had any luck in the dozen or so outings I have tried this thing out.

I saved the Nor’Easter for the last hole I drilled in about 11-feet of water halfway into a large cove. With my host at my side, I sent down a lively Arkansas shiner and placed the line in the line holder that acts as the trigger. It’s a clever design, but it can be a little temperamental and trip false flags once in a while. Sure enough, after setting it, we got no more than five paces away and it pops. I joked that the wooden trap would end up as kindling if it kept this up all day. To my pleasant surprise, the braided line was off to the side just a hair when we got back to it. I literally must have dropped the baitfish right on top of a pike lying in wait.

Crouched next to the hole, I picked up the rod, engaged the reel, and slowly came tight to some weight that began swimming away. It lasted only a minute or two, but it was a really cool experience battling my first pike on a jigger. A respectable fish, not huge by any means, but healthy, full of fight, and quickly released. I wish I could say that started a chain reaction of flags popping all over our spread, but it was not to be. We did, however, have a blast just soaking in the sun and enjoying the prospect of a huge fish moving in at any moment to feed.



What lacked in flags was made up in jigging for panfish. It’s not worth the effort in most places that I fish for pike, but this spot had good depth and the bottom was paved in yellow perch. A bonus was reeling in a big fallfish. Awesome pike baits in their own right, I immediately airlifted it to one of my tip-ups and put it to work. I also missed a mystery fish that doubled over my rod to its cork handle. I am guessing it was a pike that zeroed in on the school of perch, but in that body of water the options of what it could have been are numerous. Regardless, it was enjoyable showing my fishing partners the clear benefit of having electronics when jigging on the ice. Even the basic model fish finder that I have can be a game changer.



By early afternoon, dad life was calling and it was time to start a slow pick-up in hopes for one final flag before hitting the road. Naturally, I let the Nor’Easter soak for as long as possible, but no more luck for me. Buddy saved his luck for late in the day. When I got home, he texted a photo of a pike he landed similar in size to mine. Two pike over 30-inches and a pile of panfish, all in all, that's a pretty good day. I met some new friends, fished new water, and checked a new box—northern pike on the jigging stick. A neat ice fishing first on the last day of the season. 


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What's In A Name?

Tip-ups, tilts, traps—whatever you call them—are a standard piece of equipment for ice anglers. They come in an array of shapes and sizes for different situations and styles of fishing. My go-to traps are Heritage Lakers. Each one is handmade in Maine from white ash. They can be cumbersome when lugging around a full set of six traps, but they are dependable and can take a beating. 

Most of mine are more than ten years old now. Their components are a bit tired—the flags don’t snap to attention like they used to—but they get the job done and I love them like old friends. I’ve spent many a night over a work bench tinkering with them or swapping out leaders. Each one of their bright orange flags has a name written on it. Maybe it is habit or superstition perhaps, but I’ve been naming my tip-ups ever since I got into ice fishing. Here are the stories behind their names. 


The first Heritage Laker that I ever purchased was from Kittery Trading Post and I named it Old Faithful. Wish I could say it's named after the famous Yellowstone geyser, but I haven’t made it there yet. It’s just a reliable piece of gear and usually the first trap out of my sled any given outing. It has fished classic waters from Sebago Lake to Lake George and if this tip-up could talk, it would have some cool stories to tell.


It is family lore that my eldest brother was almost named Tecumseh after the famous Shawnee warrior and chief. My dad ended up losing that battle to my mom and Gavin he became. I’ve always been big into Native American culture and history and enjoy looking for their long lost artifacts. Naming one of my traps Tecumseh was a nod of respect to the people that fished and hunted these lands before us.


I fell in love with this name after seeing the classic Wes Anderson film 'The Royal Tenenbaums.' A couple scenes in the movie show Richie Tenenbaum practicing falconry on a New York City rooftop. His badass bird was a Saker Falcon named Mordecai. That’s it. 


It’s hard to nail down exactly what mojo means. Lucky comes close. Surfcasters often speak of mojo when referring to favorite battle-worn plugs. Tip-ups can have mojo too. This one lives up to its name and has been part of some of my largest fish through the ice. 


The winter solstice has been celebrated for eons. In the northern hemisphere, it’s the shortest period of daylight of the year. Each day afterward, until the summer solstice, we see the gradual lengthening of days. It’s not every year that there is fishable ice in Connecticut by the winter solstice, but it’s a good sign if there is. 


Sleeper is always the last tip-up I set. It’s purposely put a little out of the way—either at the end of my trap line or behind the shelter slightly out of sight. It’s the trap I want to set and forget and hope to see with a flag up when I remember to check it. More than once it’s been Sleeper that has saved the day out there for me. 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Fresh Ink

It's been a couple of years since writing for anything other than this blog. It was fun to ease back into it with a throwback story about catching roosterfish from a kayak on my honeymoon in Costa Rica. The article is featured in the February issue of The Fisherman Magazine, which subscribers can find online here. Looking forward to sharing more stories here and in print soon.